In a drawing room on a stormy moonlit night, a candle burns below a bad portrait of an arch-browed brunette. A torrent of violin arpeggios descends with the stage lights. From the first crack of lightning, Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep resides in a world of elaborate artifice. We never really arrive at "Mandacrest, the Hillside estate" or "various places in Egypt" -- the play's explicit settings -- but see those fictive places through the scrim of camp theatricality. Men in drag, dancing mummies, impossible double casting, allusions and quotations from Shakespeare to Poe to Hollywood B movies, all create a craggy landscape of absurd plot twists and excessive stock characters that seduce even as they beg for ironic analysis.
To call Ludlam a master of the spoof glosses over his work's tantalizing complexity. As the founder and playwright in residence of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York City for 20 years, he carved out an idiosyncratic genre that emphasizes our layered perceptual apparatuses and aesthetic baggage as much as story, character, or theme. Depending on what classics you've read, or how many late-night movies you've been subjected to, the work may seem alternately impenetrable and familiar, profound and moronic. Plays anchored by such a plethora of shared references often pale next to less culturally ingrown theater.
But Ludlam's commitment to his overwrought, fantastically codified style proves that a good imagination can indeed sift gold from ordinary filth. After their rousing success at Aurora's tiny parlor theater in Berkeley, directors Tom Ross and Danny Scheie brought the show across the bay in an unprecedented Magic/Aurora co-production. It's easy to see why this two-man performance warranted a special arrangement. Seizing their multiple roles with ferocious clarity and unflagging mischief, Berkeley Rep's Charles Shaw Robinson and Magic's Danny Scheie turn the stage into a whirlwind of quicksilver affectations, mutant accents, and gestural parody. As the convoluted plot erupts around the death of Irma Vep, werewolves, vampires, an ancient Egyptian tablet, and the love of Lady Enid and Lord Edgar, the actors' frenetic costume changes become central to Ludlam's joke. "God, he'll never change," Scheie enunciates while waiting for one of Robinson's late entrances. "I said, God, he'll never change!" By constantly calling our attention to the actors, Ludlam creates roles that are both exceedingly difficult and juicy. Watching Scheie and Robinson play off one another, I often forgot to laugh but found myself gaping in astonishment.
-- Carol Lloyd
A Summer Night's Dream
Pericles. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Roger DeLaurier. Starring Remi Sandri, Melanie Hermann, Michelle Morain, and Lynne Soffer. Presented by the California Shakespeare Festival at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, Siesta Valley, Orinda, through Aug. 2. Call (510) 548-9666.
Pericles is the perfect Shakespeare to compete with summer's cinematic action-packed blast. It doesn't have the speed or feisty babes of a $100 million blockbuster, but it does have incest, pirate kidnappings, plagues, long-lost daughters, and divine intervention. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, is forced to set off on a Ulyssean adventure after he discovers the incestuous secret of a princess he's wooing and her daddy sends assassins after him. This is just the first act; the rest of the play is equally baroque. But watching Pericles get jerked around by the Fates is entertaining in the same way it was satisfying to watch L.A. incinerate in Volcano -- somebody's life is worse.
So if the prince's story is so fun and accessible, why isn't this play performed more often? Because Pericles is the ugly stepchild of the Shakespearean canon. (It was excluded from the seminal first folio of 1623, probably because it was a collaboration.) The Bard didn't write the first nine scenes, and the whole was likely pieced together by actors looking to make a quick buck on a bootleg script. But some intrepid theater companies ignore the issues that twist academic knickers; the directors of the California Shakespeare Festival know a bankable script when they read it. The strengths of their production lie in playing up the pretty costumes and words that don't tax the mind in this season's heat.
The play's at-least-I'm-not-that-sucker catharsis and romantically optimistic vision cover the lack of character development. Pericles is a good guy from beginning to end, free of moral dilemmas and hamartia. When the Fates batter his boat, take his wife, or ship his peachy teen daughter into a brothel, he doesn't fight back or question the divine order. He simply puts on a hair shirt and waits for the happy ending. This is a summer play: Good is good, the bad guys wear masks, and Pericles is just a damn nice guy. Even the poetry is light on metaphor and meaning.
A pantomime to lively Middle Eastern music starts the show. We see Pericles grow from a child with a bowl haircut to a young man taking on the mantle of armor. As Pericles, Remi Sandri bears a pleasing resemblance to Nick Cage, and has that distant look affected by epic heroes and leaders. The first two acts drag a little, and Shakespeare's mystery collaborator has a habit of giving away the plot before the characters get to it -- most irritatingly, leaking the scandal of the royal incest before Pericles has read the riddle. But CSF glosses over these imperfections with a flurry of blockbuster devices: noise, costumes, and perky sidekicks. Clattering castanets and percussive music drive on the storm that shakes Pericles' ship; the costumes range from pinned-up sheets to abundant swirls of velvet. Daughter Marina (Melanie Hermann) has the treacly charm of Jasmine from Aladdin, with her thick, curly hair and midriff peeking out of puffy harem pants.
Archaic elements are eliminated largely by the recasting of women in male roles. In the play, there's a "chorus" in the form of a character called John Gower, a medieval poet. CSF's chorus is Lynne Soffer, a muse sporting a garland and flowing white robes, who fits into the context of the story better than a crusty verse man. Lisa A. Porter turns in one of the strongest performances of the show as a bawd in a whorehouse trying to sell off the virginity of Pericles' daughter; she's rascally, conniving, and the perfect foil to Marina's goody-two-shoes attitude.